washington — Speaking Mandarin and promoting love for China, countless videos of foreign-looking women made with artificial intelligence started popping up on Chinese social media platforms around the Lunar New Year earlier this month.
The avatars in the videos are created with online images that are stolen, reproduced and repurposed so that even the women in real life recognize themselves in the videos.
Olga Loiek is one of those women. She’s a 20-year-old Ukrainian who studies cognitive science at the University of Pennsylvania. A couple of months ago, Loiek started a YouTube channel where she talks about mental health and shares her philosophies about life.
However, shortly after that, she started receiving messages from followers telling her that they had seen her on Chinese social media. There, she’s not Olga Loiek but a Russian woman who speaks Mandarin, loves China and wants to marry a Chinese man. Her name is Natasha, or Anna, or Grace, depending on the social media platform you find her on in China.
“I started translating the videos with Google Translate, and I realized that most of these accounts are talking about things like China, Russia, how good the relationship between China and Russia is,” she told VOA. “This feels very violating.”
In some videos, the avatars talk about how much they value Russia and China’s close ties. In other videos, they praise Chinese history and culture or talk about how much Russian women want to marry Chinese.
“If you marry Russian women, we will wash clothes, cook, and wash dishes for you every day,” an avatar said. “We will also give you foreign babies, as many as you want.”
Several dozen videos of Loiek’s avatar speaking Mandarin have been found on video sites Douyin and Bilibili. Most of these accounts would ask viewers to visit their online stores to buy what they say are authentic Russian goods.
Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, has labeled some of these videos as potentially AI-generated. But comments show that many believed they were looking at a real woman. One netizen wrote, “Russian beauty, Chinese people welcome you.”
Loiek said she would never say things like that, obviously, given that she’s from Ukraine, which has been at war with Russia since 2022.
She said, “This is probably used to make people, maybe people in China, feel that foreigners feel that their country is superior.”
On Bilibili, China’s biggest video site, some AI videos using Loiek’s face are marked with the logo of HeyGen, indicating that the video was generated on the company’s website.
In one tutorial on Bilibili, the demonstrator even shows how to make a short video on HeyGen with a clip of Loiek talking.
HeyGen is an AI company headquartered in Los Angeles that was launched in China in 2020. It specializes in realistic digital avatars, voice generation and video translating.
The technology developed by HeyGen was used in AI videos of Donald Trump and Taylor Swift speaking perfect Mandarin that went viral on Chinese social media in October 2023. According to Forbes, the company is now valued at $75 million.
HeyGen’s moderation policy states that users cannot generate avatars that “represent real individuals, including celebrities or public figures, without explicit consent.” The company’s official tutorial video on avatar making shows that users must submit a video of people giving consent to the use of their likeness. It’s unclear how some in China could circumvent the requirement to make videos of Loiek.
Loiek said that since she and her YouTube subscribers have sent complaints to Chinese social media companies, about a dozen of the accounts imitating her have been taken down.
VOA reached out to HeyGen and Douyin’s parent company, ByteDance, for comments but has not received a response.
The Chinese government rolled out provisions to regulate deepfakes and other “deep synthesis services” in early 2023. The law prohibits generating deepfakes without the consent of the people whose image or other information is used.
Loiek posted her story on YouTube, and it has been shared on Chinese social media. Netizens across platforms sympathized with her and called for tougher regulations on AI.
Chinese tech giants such as Baidu and Tencent are investing heavily in AI technology. One of the most hyped-up services powered by AI is digital humans.
Tencent and Xiaoice, a Chinese AI studio spun off from Microsoft, offer digital human services that can clone people and turn them into AI avatars for as little as $145.
AI avatars have also been found in online disinformation campaigns that spread pro-China and anti-U.S. narratives. In February 2023, research firm Graphika found a social media campaign promoting Beijing’s interests using realistic-looking computer-generated people in videos.
In September 2023, the U.S. State Department warned in a report, “Access to global data combined with the latest developments in artificial intelligence technology would enable the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to surgically target foreign audiences and thereby perhaps influence economic and security decisions in its favor.
As for Loiek, she does not plan to quit YouTube or stop posting.
“We need some sort of regulatory frameworks, so we can understand and we can prevent these things from happening,” she said.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.